Opinion: Grade inflation must stop, but not artificially

For the first time in its twenty-six year history, the proportion of A*—C GCSE grades fell on Thursday. Michael Gove, who has been talking about grade inflation since the dawn of time, must have felt vindicated. A ‘cosy cartel’ of exam boards, head teachers and ministers has resulted in a seemingly inexorable upward trajectory of student performance. This year’s results, Gove’s supporters will suggest, reflect his work in dismantling this arrangement of mutual back scratching.

The UK has an issue with grade inflation. Although Britain’s position in the OECD/Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey substantially fell between 2000 and 2009 in science, reading and maths, GCSE pass grades improved by 18.5%. The extent of the relative decline in the PISA rankings cannot be reconciled with increasing student performance—grade inflation must in part explain this paradox.

As a consequence, GCSEs fail to achieve what examination systems are meant to: the production of reliable information about a student’s absolute and relative attainment. And if grades continue to inflate, students across the board will suffer. Those who wish to leave school at 16 will find it increasingly difficult to secure a job if the value of their qualification becomes eroded. And elite universities will struggle to select the right candidates as increasing attainment swells the application process exceptionally well qualified students.

So Gove is correct in highlighting this imperfection in our education system. But making GCSEs a more robust, and therefore reliable, qualification must be done in the right way. It is here that Gove might have come unstuck.

The Chief Executive of Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, protested to Newsnight the regulator’s independence: her and Mr Gove “had never had a conversation about [grade inflation].” But no direct communication need have taken place for the screws to be turned on Ofqual. Gove has made publicly clear on multiple occasions his misgivings about the status quo.

If it transpires that scripts were marked more favourably in January than in June, students on the margins of grade boundaries would have been dealt a grotesque injustice. But it would be equally tragic if the political fallout from such a controversy kicks GCSE reform into the long grass. Moving away from a system in which exam boards compete for schools through lowering standards would go some to elevate concerns regarding grade inflation. If such a reform comes to pass, the GCSE will regain some much needed credibility.

* William is currently working as a Research Intern at Survation while completing his MSc at the London School of Economics.

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  • OK, the PISA stats don’t actually show a fall in UK standards, rather a rise in the standards of other nations, as the story you link makes explicit.

    You state that the rise in GCSE pass rate, with the fall in PISA shows that GCSE is bad, how do you know it doesn’t show that PISA is an inadequate measure?

    You say you want GCSE’s to be more robust and reliable, we all do, but what do you mean by this? What proportion of A, B, C, D, etc grades do you think each cohort should have?

    How could this be used to measure education successes year to year?

    How can you tell the difference between increasing teaching standards and grade inflation?

  • I’d certainly rather there wasn’t any grade deflation (no inflation either). That said, the idea that a very small fall in A*-Cs is a ‘grotesque injustice’ seems a bit overblown. If it’s grossly unjust, I cannot imagine how unfair it must be to people who took their GCSEs five years ago. They’ve fallen to their 2010 level.

  • .
    Let us accept
    for the sake of the argument
    that teachers get better
    every year.


    What’s the point
    in studying for
    a top grade
    that gets
    less and less rare
    every year?

  • G – I agree the PISA report does not indicate a decline in absolute standards, but I suggest that in combination with the increasing performance over the same time frame, grade inflation ‘in part’ explains the trends we find.

    As to the proportion of A,B,Cs etc, I am agnostic. But I do think that there should be consistency. If teaching standards increase, grades should too. But what the PISA report indicates is that the increasing GCSE performance is not a result of improving standards. Indeed, the improvements in our teaching has been ‘about average.’

    As to the legitimacy of the PISA findings, I would have to say that OECD – who has no vested interest in the matter – would be more reliable than ministers, exam boards and schools – who do have an interest in the matter.

    Mike – perhaps an overstatement, yes. But it would certainly be unfair for those who sat the exams in June to receive a D if they would have received a C if they had sat the exam in January.

  • There is a simple solution to grade inflation but it all depends on the question of what you want examination for? My own belief is that the only thing an examination can show is where you came in that subject within the group of people who took that exam that year. Any other comparison has so many variables as to become useless. Therefore simply say that the top x % achieve A next x% achieve B etc. I would also suggest that having one board per subject would also help resolve the issue. Final exams should never be used to measure a schools improvement, they are too important for that.

  • “My own belief is that the only thing an examination can show is where you came in that subject within the group of people who took that exam that year. Any other comparison has so many variables as to become useless. Therefore simply say that the top x % achieve A next x% achieve B etc.”

    That seems an eminently straightforward and sensible solution to the whole problem.

    Of course, there’s absolutely no chance it will happen.

  • Basic probability and statistic’s (ie. as taught at A-level ) tells you that twenty-six years of continuously rising grades is a statistical anomaly and that we can expect deviations from this trend. The question is whether we can identify causes and associated evidence.

    Whilst it may be convenient to point the finger at Gove due to the co-incidence, we need to firstly factor in the news from earlier in the year concerning the behaviour of certain exam boards offering schools favourably marked GCSE’s. Were the June 2012 papers from these exam boards correctly marked and adjudicated and hence a student who in a previous year would of got a favourable A now gets a correctly earned B grade?

    Once we have year-on-year consistency of marking and grades, we can then meaningfully compare these results with other countries and determine whether the international standard has changed, as per the Olympics.

  • Alex Macfie 1st Sep '12 - 9:01pm

    @Dave W: Your suggestion (norm referencing) is what used to be done. But it’s a bad idea because it means that even if there is a genuine improvement in performance over the previous year, then this is not reflected in the grades awarded. Therefore, there is no incentive for teachers to encourage each student to achieve their own personal best result; they might as well let students coast if the same number of each grade are going to be awarded anyway. Norm referncing seems to be based on a deterministic view of student performance, that in every year there will always be the same “bell curve” distribution of aptitude, whatever teachers or anyone else might do to develop students — the “fixed pool of talent” idea as mentioned above.
    BTW the switch to criterion referencing was made in the early 1980s, under the Thatcher government, and under Education Secretary Keith Joseph. This ought to give Gove pause for thought if he wants to roll back to the way things were before: clearly the switch was made not because of some left-wing educational theorist, but because it made sense.

  • Alex Macfie 1st Sep '12 - 9:02pm

    Especially when commenting on a blog article about education, one really should get grammar right. There is no apostrophe in “statistics”, and it’s “would have”.

  • I agree with the point made by Alex on the norm referencing. We can go back to that but it would then introduce the problem of comparing year groups, especially over time .

    What you support depends on what you think exams are for as Dave W says. The problem is that the Government gives mixed messages.

    Roland, the statistics you quote are only applicable if there is no outside influence. So-called grade inflation is actually natural expectation if you use a criterion reference system. In the 25 years since I took my exams, both pupils and their schools have become more ‘professional’ in their approach to exams. Due to performance tables and the competition for good HE places both sides have worked hard on improvement. Whether it actually ‘improves’ education is less clear

    There are benefits in both approaches and not one is perfect. What is clear is that Gove is an idiot and he needs to think out something a bit more coherent that the general nonsense that comes out of his mouth

  • @bazzac

    Yes with the change from norm referencing to criterion referencing (which I support) we can expect a period of adjustment, in the UK’s case this happened back in the early 1980’s. Additionally, the completion of the move to the single GCSE exam meant that more students were effectively sitting O-levels and had the potential to score higher than a CSE grade 1/O-level grade C.

    So whilst this can help explain the initial few years, it does not really explain the last ~20 years. However, here as you note, schools have become more focused and directed in their approach to exams (aka playing the system), which in itself has lead to increasing numbers of good grades. However even this will reach a plateau point.

    The question is therefore whether we have or are reaching this plateau and whether other advances are similarly having an effect. The seeming absence of authoritative studies is concerning as it would seem that potentially lurking in the education system are some teaching practice success stories and examples of good practice that should be shared.

    Yes, the competition for HE places has heated up and specifically for those places that were previously only available to the (smaller number of) holders of norm referenced O-level grades. The implication is that ‘other’ skills and achievements will increasingly play a part in a student gaining an HE place.

    Lets hope that this grade drop is not due to political interference …

  • @ Alex Macfie you suggest with Norm referencing that schools have no incentive to improve and get the best from each pupil. I disagree; the schools would be competing with each other to improve their share of each of the grades. This will be a simpler and more honest method of highlighting how a school is doing than the current method which is so open to manipulation.

    @Roland :- “The implication is that ‘other’ skills and achievements will increasingly play a part in a student gaining an HE place.” This is what I am afraid of, the best quote I have heard on the subject was from a history admissions tutor “ What I am looking for are exception historians not mediocre ones who can play the flute!” With more and more student gaining over 90% in exams this is becoming more difficult. Why should a student who is passionate about history have to be a member of the UK triathlon team do charity work in Africa, and have grade 1 flute to get a place at University. A return to Norm referencing will allow universities and businesses to be able to treat grades with far more respect. I believe that if more than a few students get above 95% in an exam then that exam was a failure as it did not stretch the student enough.
    There have been a few comparisons to the Olympics, here is another, In the Olympics there are a set number of gold, silver and bronze medals. They do not give a gold medal to everyone who beat the times set at the last Olympics They only give them to the best at that particular games.

  • Peter Watson 3rd Sep '12 - 10:46am

    I must admit that a lot of this debate leaves me confused.
    If there has been no fiddling of the system, then is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the plateauing (or decline) of the GCSE grades is that the coalition (i.e. our) education policy has made things worse?
    Why do we not expect absolute standards to continue to improve over time as teachers and pupils work within the system? Usain Bolt runs faster than Asafa Powell who ran faster than Justin Gatlin, etc., but we don’t say that 100 metres is getting shorter.
    If we ignore the absolute performance and concentrate on relative performance each year then how do we assess relative performance between years? There is enough controversy at the moment about the difference between exam grading 6 months apart. Using the sporting analogies beloved by people in these debates, comparing Federer with Borg is just a pub debate, but how is a university or employer to compare the grades of applicants from different school years, especially when a C in maths or english is a prerequisite for many opportunities.
    It strikes me that Lib Dems have the opportunity to carve out a clear and distinctive position over education policy, something which is vitally important to all of us, and I suspect disproportionately so to this party. Instead we are just allowing Gove to tinker with the system based upon political dogma and his own prejudices with no apparent scrutiny or opinions of our own.

  • @ Peter Watson

    “comparing Federer with Borg is just a pub debate, but how is a university or employer to compare the grades of applicants from different school years”

    The simple answer is they can’t, they have been trying for years and this is what had led to grade inflation. I once worked for a company that created a KPI on which bonuses depended, the manipulation of that KPI nearly led to the firm collapsing. By moving back to Norm referencing and allowing the schools to compete for the percentage share of grades at least the university or business will know that the applicant was part of the top X % of that year and that because of the schools competing to improve their percentage, with no way of fudging the results, over time the value of the grades should increase.

  • Alex Macfie 3rd Sep '12 - 4:04pm

    The idea of schools competing for the limited number of ‘A’ grades available rather wipes out any prospect of co-operation between schools (or teachers, or students). There is no incentive for schools, or for teachers in the same subject area, to share best practices if doing so means that those they share the knowledge with might swipe use this some of their top grades. Indeed it creates an incentive for the schools, or teachers, or indeed students, to actively undermine the efforts of others. Any element of group or team work in a course with norm-based assessment is out of the question. As an analogy, think of what might happen in companies (e.g. in casino banking) that routinely lay off the bottom performing say 10% of their staff each year.

    And norm-referencing also has impacts on education policy. What would be the point in government implementing policies that aim to improve the performance of lower-performing students if their improvement is necessarily at the expense of those who are already performing well? In other words, why spend money on improving the facilities in the school that serves kids from the council estate, to cater for their specific learning needs, when this is likely to be more expensive than just letting the pupils of the sort who would be expected to get the top grades, get the limited number available? The latter option is likely to be much easier and cheaper than actually spending money to improve the lot of all young people, particularly those at the bottom.
    If you assess students so that the top x% get the top grades, then that top x% will mostly be the upper-middle-class kids who go to nice schools.Norm-referencing is about school children being told to accept their lot in life.

  • Alex Macfie 3rd Sep '12 - 4:05pm

    sorry, “use this to swipe some of their top grades”. Careless copy-editing…

  • Alex, The main point of my argument is that without a measure that is clear of manipulation you will never get a solution. As far as co-operation between schools that is easy, pair a well performing school with a poor performing one and incentivise the partnership. The best practice argument is weak at best, Best practice is not held by schools but in the brains of talented teachers, their own ego and desire for advancement will make sure that best practice is published.

    Your other argument “rich kids get good grades” has nothing to do with norm referencing as it is just as much a problem with the current system. That is why we have introduced the pupil premium. I think the reason people hate “norm” is because it gives a clear indication of the status of a school. Vested interests certainly do not want that.

  • Alex Macfie 3rd Sep '12 - 5:44pm

    But a norm-referenced system is not clear of manipulation, as shown by my point about players actively undermining each other’s efforts in order to increase their own rankings. And any assessment system has a risk of bias, however the grades are determined. Do youreally think that any exam in a given subject will inevitably put all the candidates in the same order, irrespective of format or questions? Of course it would not.

    Whether teachers publish best practice depends on the culture of the system that they work in. They tend to do this because they do not think of themselves as being directly in competition with each other. In a highly competitive educational environment where one institution’s gain is always another’s loss, it seems likely that they would start to think like employees in competing private sector companies, for whom disclosure of their teaching practice, as a “trade secret”, might become taboo. Also it doesn’t matter how schools are partnered: inevitably the better performing school will see the worse performing one as a rival, and would not want to see its upstart competitor taking ‘A’ grades from it.

    The point about rich kids getting good grades is that norm referencing would reinforce this by removing an incentive for public to reverse the situation, as whatever happens the overall distribution of grades is the same. Why spend a lot of public money when there would be nothing to show for it in the published results?

    And published results show whatever one wants them to show. It makes no difference whether these are based on a criterion reference or a norm reference: schools are ranked in some sort of order. So either way, they show the same thing about the status of a school, which is not very much. A school that is low in the league tables may actually be effectively developing its students from the estate. A school that is high in the league tables could be coasting with bright middle-class students. Simple relative rankings of performance of schools, however their underlying results are determined, do not show these nuances.

  • Peter Watson 3rd Sep '12 - 7:07pm

    @Alex Macfie
    You make excellent points about the problems with a norm-referenced system. It reminds me of a radio interview I recently heard where a Microsoft employee was criticising “stack ranking” within the company for employee reviews. As you identify, it encourages behaviour which is counter-productive and against the common good. Performance becomes a zero-sum game: school X can improve its results by sabotaging school Y.
    I do not pretend that a solution is easy: developing a system that is fair for all children both within a school year and between school years is a huge challenge, and Alex Mcfie, Dave W, and others here all make good arguments. I resent the policy vacuum in this area at the top of the party and the way our representatives have failed to challenge the assertions and actions of Michael Gove.

  • “You make excellent points about the problems with a norm-referenced system.”

    Naturally, no system in this world is going to be perfect. The question is whether these problems would be greater than the ones with the current system. I find that difficult to believe.

  • Peter Watson 3rd Sep '12 - 8:32pm

    It seems to me that the problem we have is a finite number of grade slots that can be filled, so that if standards have genuinely improved over time this can only be accommodated by an increasing number of candidates in the top grades who then become harder to distinguish between. Is there scope for an open-ended system where the top “score” is a moveable value (i.e. a number rather than a grade)?

    I accept that ensuring and maintaining a standard against which to assess would be very difficult, but the current approach seems to be problematic and the norm referencing alternative seems fundamentally wrong.

  • Chris

    Why do you find it difficult to believe?

    My own view is that it depends what exams are for – as a ranking exercise or measuring the aptitude of the examined? I am sure we could adapt the current system to make it more sensitive but that would not fit in with the narrative that Gove is trying to put across. He is the most pernicious secretary of state we have had for a long time and seems more interested in his own pet causes that in trying to improve education for all.

  • @Dave W (3rd Sep ’12 – 9:40am)
    I do understand and to some extent share your concerns. However, in my book the “exceptional historian” is one who displays “other skills” by not only being very good and enthused at history but also being able to communicate this (I basically agree with bazzasc’s (2nd Sep ’12 – 9:02am) rhetorical point about exam grooming “Whether it actually ‘improves’ education is less clear”).

    I think at A-level the film “The History Boys” makes a very good and valid comment about the normal approach to teaching in state schools and the attitudes and aspirations it sows in it’s pupils, and why “an education” is more than just passing exams.

    Yes the Olympic’s can be regarded as an extreme norm referenced system with only one candidate getting each pass grade of medal. However, we also get is the actual times and scores and hence can refer these back to previous events and records.

    So perhaps what is needed is not a pure one or the other system but one which combines both to enable candidates to be awarded grades such as: A* (criterion)/A* (norm) and A (criterion)/B (norm). Obviously, if we continue to see grade improvements then a time will come when we could see A* (criterion)/F (norm) – ie., all those in the men’s 100m final who ran under 10 sec’s but did not get a medal … I personally don’t see a problem with this as it is just another interpretation/view of the marks awarded.

    However, I accept that what we actually need in education is for teachers and schools to share good practice so that we (as a nation) get the best out of all pupils and not just those luck enough to go to the right school, hence we need a grading system that supports and encourages this.

  • Peter Watson 3rd Sep '12 - 11:37pm

    I find the sporting analogies very interesting in this context, many of which I think reflect badly on a norm referenced approach. In athletics we do have times or distances against which to compare previous competitors as a complement to the inherent “extreme norm referenced system”, while in something like tennis we have no such common measures. But even this could be be misleading: Mo Farrah would win a race much more slowly if his competition is poor or distracted by manoeuvring for second place.
    In cycling, time trials – where a standardised time is the measure of performance – then we expect competitors to put in maximum effort and be proud of a good time or personal best even if it is not enough to win on the day. Alternatively in road racing – where all that matters is a norm referenced first or second place – then in the olympics we saw that it was not in any nation’s interest to put in the extra effort to finish faster if the outcome was simply going to hand victory to Bradley Wiggins instead of somebody else.
    My musing earlier about a more open-ended “score” based approach might be similar to the heptathlon / decathlon where points are amassed. We have a winner on the day, a basis for comparing Jessica Ennis with Denise Lewis, and we can see the gradual improvement of typical performances over time. In sports and education, if this year’s runner-up is better than last year’s winner, then this should be recognised.

  • @Roland
    An excellent idea!
    It would be very interesting to see which mark the universites would use 🙂

    @Peter agree this would be betterthan the current, but how do we stop the teachers, schools, Exam boards & eductation ministers manipulating the scores ever upwards.

  • Peter Watson 5th Sep '12 - 2:01pm

    Dave W 4th Sep ’12 – 3:15pm

    @Dave W “agree this would be betterthan the current, but how do we stop the teachers, schools, Exam boards & eductation ministers manipulating the scores ever upwards.
    The $64000 question! The problem with assessing against a fixed standard is ensuring that the standard is indeed fixed and comparable from one year to the next. The problem with forced ranking each year is that some of those who fail this year might be better than those who passed last year.
    For me, the ideal system should allow ranking of this year’s students against last year’s and have no upper bound on scoring so that if performances improve this is visible and uncontroversial. Ultimately, we probably do need a new approach to assessment and qualifications, preceded by a thorough, open and evidence-based debate on the purpose of schooling and education and best way to achieve it.
    Instead, we hear hyperbole, half-truths and innuendo about the current system, to the extent that this year’s falling GCSE grades were ridiculously welcomed in some quarters as evidence that the exams have been made more “rigorous”. Equally, it is taken for granted by some that simply changing the current courses to have a single exam at the end will automatically make them more “rigorous”. Setting aside the fact that those people are not defining what they mean by “rigour” and are using the word as if it were synonymous with “good”, what evidence is there that changing the assessment or examination mechanism will produce better results at the end of the same course. Is the aim to educate our children or simply to rank them.
    One of my stereotypes about the Lib Dems is that it is the party for teachers (apologies for that, but it’s a better stereotype than beards and sandals), and as a parent it depresses me that the party doesn’t seem to have any clear views about the education system and is simply acquiescing while Gove tinkers and panders to the prejudices of those who favour a return to the 50s with a privately or grammar-school educated elite. Perhaps Laws will make a difference, but comments about his political views and the part-time nature of his new schools role do not make me optimistic.
    Sorry, rant over.

  • “Why do you find it difficult to believe?”

    Simply because the percentage of people getting given grades has changed so enormously over the last decade or two. Whatever you think the reason is, it’s certainly not because of a huge change in the intrinsic intelligence or aptitude of the students, but grade inflation makes it impossible to compare that aptitude between those who were examined at different times.

    Actually, Roland’s suggestion ought to be capable of satisfying everyone. Why not award both a grade and a percentile? Then employers would have the choice of using the grade if they believe it, and the percentile if they don’t.

  • Peter Watson 5th Sep '12 - 11:28pm

    “Whatever you think the reason is, it’s certainly not because of a huge change in the intrinsic intelligence or aptitude of the students,”
    I suspect that a huge part of it is simply that children are better prepared by their teachers to tackle exams. I firmly believe that exam technique is at least as important as subject knowledge in succeeding in exams, and it is no good in our education system having a great knowledge and love of a subject if you can’t give an examination marker what he wants to see. Lesser knowledge can be compensated by exam practice, looking at past papers, question spotting, selective revision (I picked up a top grade in one university exam having only learnt half of the topic – I successfully predicted which half would be in the exam!), having the right state of mind, etc. When I sat my O-levels, the only exam paper I saw was for the mocks: this year my son worked through endless past papers and specimen papers as part of his GCSE revision. That is why I believe that if we want more ‘rigour’ (whatever that means) in our system, it is a backwards step to base the whole assessment on an end-of-course exam, increasing the emphasis on exam-specific abilities and completely ignoring other vital skills such as teamwork and independent research.

  • Grade inflation is possibly even worse at university level. In my experience as a university lecturer students are definitely not more motivated to achieve A grades, but their desire for such is greater than I have ever seen. Students read less, prepare less for classes. A colleague recently told me that of her class of MA students only 99% had read the set text for the week, forcing her to abandon her planned class and improvise something else on the spot. Those same students will be first in the queue when the students make appointments to see me at the end of the academic year t o complain that they haven’t received distinctions. The modules I teach regularly see half the students getting distinctions, which doesn’t make sense statistically. I have also observed the way in which new lecturers start off as rigorous but fair markers end up getting increasingly more lenient after having to deal with students who are upset. about what they perceive to be “poor” marks (anything less than an ‘A’). Couple this with the fact that the university is under pressure to show excellent results so that it can move up the league table and you can see that the whole system is open to abuse. It’s a bubble waiting to burst and I am just so sad that education has reached this sorry state.

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